Aug 2, 2019
In-season strength and conditioning for Syracuse football
By Sean Edinger, contributing writer

syracuse football strength
Photos courtesy of Syracuse University.

Tempo and attrition. Syracuse football uses both of these to put pressure on the opposition.

In 2017, the Syracuse University football team averaged 87.8 plays per game — the highest in the country. Syracuse ranked seventh in 2016 (83.8 plays per game) and second in 2018 (84.3 plays per game). An uptempo offense wears down defenses and stresses opposing offenses attempting to match its point output.

Under Head Coach Dino Babers, tempo is paramount. Our in-season strength and conditioning must reflect and accommodate that. But as a strength staff, we know that our in-season training must also meet the individual needs of our players, which necessitates flexibility and adaptation.

To hit both requirements, we place in-season weight room work front and center. Our overarching training philosophy for the competitive slate looks to maintain and, in many cases, improve our strength levels, while addressing common weak points that lend themselves to aggravation. In addition, we divide players into levels based on experience and in-game reps to make sure they get workouts catered to their specific in-season demands. Bringing everything together, we emphasize effort, resiliency, and the discipline to remain in continual training so players aren’t subjected to breakdown and injury.

2018 marked our staff’s third season implementing our program at Syracuse, and it was our best one yet. After back-to-back 4-8 marks, we enjoyed a 9-3 regular season — our best record since 2001. It meant our senior class enjoyed a well-earned bowl game — something they’d never experienced — and showed the return on investment for all of our players’ hard work. Our season culminated with a bowl win, a final record of 10-3, and a No. 15 ranking.

Culture and philosophy

To understand our in-season training, it’s important to understand our culture. I worked with Babers at two schools before Syracuse, so I know our strength and conditioning program has his complete support. This enabled us to place a priority on the weight room.

Nothing supplants practices and scheduled lifting while we are in-season. Everything else — including meetings, rehab obligations and tutoring sessions — is scheduled around these two activities. Adherence to this seemingly simple rule has been the single strongest endorsement of our physical culture and has allowed us to have tremendous success implementing our philosophy.

Another important element of our program is understanding and acknowledging that our training has to reflect the current needs of our team. This requires being in a state of constant evolution from season to season. We have to consider:

→ Overall training age of players: This year, we had the youngest team I’ve ever worked with. We returned just 16 players who were here when we arrived as a staff.

→ Positional needs: Our style of play dictates the physical demands placed on players. The tempo at which we play is particularly hard on our offensive and defensive linemen, and it means our receivers need to be incredibly resilient. We take this into consideration during exercise selection and loading schemes for back squat.

→ Overall talent: Syracuse hasn’t enjoyed much football success over the past 17 years. Because of this, the natural talent level of our players may not be quite as high as other teams in our conference. Therefore, what we may lack in size and speed must be made up for in strength and resiliency. Our training must reflect this.

→ Overload: Recovery trumps everything during the season, especially with our pace of play. We are constantly mindful of overuse injuries and take cautions to prevent them.

Programming basics

Our culture and philosophy form the basis for our in-season plan. We divide our season into three four-week blocks. This allows for a slow progression through our core lifts (back squat, hang clean and bench press). We try to avoid changing auxiliary exercises often, as any new movement will generally lead to some soreness before the body adapts. There is already plenty of soreness throughout the course of a season — we don’t need to add to it.

Within each block, we lift three days a week:

  • Sunday (back squat)
  • Tuesday (hang clean)
  • Thursday (bench press)

In general, each lift contains an upper-body push, upper-body pull, shoulder or rotator cuff exercise, a single-leg movement, a posterior chain exercise, and core (abdominal) movements of the players’ choice. Twice per week, we also perform manually resisted neck movements.

Cultivating a specific training environment is a big part of our in-season programming. We preach great effort and enthusiasm in everything we do. To foster this during training, we lift in large groups. Large numbers create more energy and promote accountability among players. We split the team into offense, defense and redshirt groups, with up to 40 athletes in each one.

sean edinger footballIn order to minimize confusion and create a flow to the workouts, we simplify as much as possible. All players have individual numbers that they are expected to perform on our core lifts, and all of these are seen by a coach and “signed out” or recorded.

Once signed out, the players can perform the remaining auxiliary exercises for the day in any order they choose. These exercises are the same for all three groups. This minimizes waiting for equipment and allows the athletes to move at their own pace, even super-setting exercises to save time if they so choose. It also keeps our setup consistent and makes it easier to monitor players.

Besides enhancing effort and enthusiasm, lifting in large groups enables us to be mindful of our players’ schedules. Although we prioritize our weight room sessions, players have tremendous time constraints in-season, and it’s important to give them time to meet all of their other obligations. We try to optimize their time spent in our facility, so while our offense lifts, our defense holds meetings, and then they swap.

  » ALSO SEE: University of Georgia football strength training

Our use of large training groups requires a lot of coordination among our coaching staff. We hold a meeting before every session to ensure that all full-time coaches and interns understand what each lifting level is doing and to cover any adjustments or exceptions (in the case of restricted or injured players). The payoff is having players that are much more energetic and accountable — well worth the effort.

Despite our overall foundation for in-season training, we keep in mind that everything we plan and put on paper is just that — a plan. Things happen, and plans change, so the devil lies in the details.

Training a football team is a huge logistical undertaking. We have upwards of 90 players on our team, all with individual needs, and we must take into account injuries, bye weeks, games that aren’t played on Saturdays, travel plans, depth chart changes, positional switches, sickness, and outside obligations. This is where coaching and experience show their worth. It is imperative to be proactive and realize when a plan or program needs to be adjusted — or even scrapped —  before potential conflicts or complications arise.

Travel and intermediate levels

Within our large lifting groups, we have multiple levels that categorize where a player is in his development. There are four distinct levels in the offseason and summer, but we trim it down to three in-season because of the unique demands and priorities of this phase. (This does not include our redshirt program, which will not be covered in this article). We designate the in-season groups as: Travel, Intermediate and Advanced. The number of players in each group depends on the year, and each level handles our core lift progression a different way.

Our Travel and Intermediate groups make up the majority of our team — in 2018, we had 19 Intermediate and 38 Travel. The difference between the two is that our Intermediate players are either very young (i.e., true freshmen) or don’t get much playing time (i.e., less than 20 snaps per game).

The Intermediate players can tolerate and benefit from more volume, so their reps are a little higher on bench press and hang clean during the season. For bench press, the comparison looks like this:

  • Travel bench press: 4×3, up to five reps on the last set.
  • Intermediate bench press: 4×5, up to seven reps on the last set. As the season progresses, both groups increase intensity on hang clean and bench press every week. We use the same loading scheme for both lifts with tremendous success.

For instance, in week one, the percentages are 45% of one-rep maximum (1RM), 50%, 55% and 60%. Yes, this is extremely light, and that’s by design. We continue to progress by five percent every week until we reach 85%. So the first six weeks look like:

  • Week 1: 45%, 50%, 55%, 60%
  • Week 2: 50%, 55%, 60%, 65%
  • Week 3: 55%, 60%, 65%, 70%
  • Week 4: 60%, 65%, 70%, 75%
  • Week 5: 65%, 70%, 75%, 80%
  • Week 6: 70%, 75%, 80%, 85%

What begins as almost “too light” becomes quite substantial by week five. Again, if a player feels he is able to perform the bonus reps for the last set, he is encouraged to do so. For anyone familiar with a repetition max chart, 85% for five repetitions is generally considered to be the equivalent of a 1RM. If a player is able to perform five repetitions at 85%, we increase the intensity to 90% the next week. If a player cannot complete five reps, he will stay at 85%.

At this point, both the Travel and Intermediate groups are on a 4×3 (up to five reps on the last set) scheme. If a player is able to perform three, four or five reps at 90%, he will then progress to 95% the following week. Then, if he can complete three repetitions at 95%, he successfully sets a new personal record (PR) in that lift. Once a PR has been achieved (or attempted), we lower the player’s weight back to the 85% maintenance level.

This loading scheme for our Travel and Intermediate players has allowed us to have tremendous success in becoming stronger and setting new PR’s while in the midst of a season. It gives the players something to strive for in the weight room, and it is a huge morale boost, especially when PR’s are accomplished during the final phase of the season.

Another reason our loading scheme is beneficial is because it takes individual recovery into account, which is important in-season. If a player is able to recover from week to week and push himself, he has a great opportunity to become stronger than he’s ever been. If he isn’t able to recover as well or is playing a substantial amount of snaps, he is still able to maintain an acceptable level of strength that allows him to practice and play at a competitive level.

Unlike our loading scheme for bench press and hang clean, we are more cautious while squatting with our Travel and Intermediate players in-season because of the sheer amount of plays we run during practice and games. Both groups use the same set and rep scheme as with hang clean and bench press, but we cap the intensity at 70% for Travel and 80% for Intermediate. We’ve found that this allows players to stay strong and mobile without becoming overtaxed. (See BLOCK ONE for a sample in-season workout for the Intermediate group.)

We begin deloading all three core lifts for our Travel and Intermediate players during week 10. Bench press remains relatively high at 80% for the remaining weeks, but hang clean drops from 85% to 75% to 70%. Back squat drops from 70% to 60% to 50%, all in an attempt to recover and be the freshest team on the field in our final regular season games.

Advanced level

Our Advanced lifting group is comprised of the oldest, most experienced players on our team, and we had 28 members in 2018. They normally have the highest play count and are less likely to recover well enough to set new PR’s while in-season (nor do they need to).

Because we don’t emphasize loading nearly as much with our Advanced players, it is important to find ways to maintain their strength levels and allow them to recover. We do this by modifying their core lifts and being cautious with their intensity.

For the first four weeks of the season, the Advanced players use the exact same intensity, loading (4×3, up to five on the last set), and lifts as the Travel and Intermediate groups. In the second block, they continue with hang clean at a maximum intensity of 75%. However, we substitute box squats for back squats and board presses (two or three boards depending on arm length) for bench presses. Recovery is paramount during this stage of the season, so reducing or modifying the range of motion on these two lifts allows us to keep appreciable weight on the bar without applying undue stress on the body. (See BLOCK TWO for a sample in-season workout for the Advanced group.)

The loading parameters for box squat and board press during the second block are:

  • Box squat: Five sets of three, and the first three sets are 55%, 65% and 70%. The weight on the final two sets is up to the players. If they wish, they can remain at 70%, but they can increase it as long as bar speed stays high.
  • Board press: Five sets of three, and the first three sets are 60%, 70% and 75%. As with the box squat, the weight on the final two sets is the players’ choice. They can use whatever feels good as long as bar speed stays high.

When we enter the final four-week block of the season, we once again modify the core lifts for the Advanced players. We lower hang clean intensity to just 70%, and we add chains to the box squats and board presses while lowering the bar weight. Loading parameters for the latter two exercises during the final phase are:

  • Box squat: Four sets of three, and the final bar weights are 70% in week nine, 65% in week 10, 60% in week 11, and 55% in week 12.
  • Board press: Four sets of three, and the final bar weights are 75% in week nine and 70% for weeks 10, 11 and 12.

In order to be successful at Syracuse, we’ve built a solid program while navigating all of the potential roadblocks that come with playing collegiate football. Much of our success is due to the manner in which the players have embraced the physical culture we’ve emphasized. They’ve remained consistent in their training, stayed the course, and received a return on their investment.

Sean Edinger, MS, SCCC, USAW, is the assistant athletic director for athletic performance at Syracuse University, working with the football team. Prior to Syracuse, he was the director of strength and conditioning at Bowling Green State University for two years and held a similar position at Eastern Illinois University.

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